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Drug court gives offenders a second chance.
Published Feb. 11, 2008

One morning in 1996, Dawn Ryan woke up and couldn't move her head. She had excruciating pain in her neck. Ryan, who was 26 at the time, a wife and the mother of two young boys, didn't remember injuring it. She was fine when she went to bed.

Her husband took her to the doctor, who prescribed pain pills. Those first ones were Darvocet. Then it became a combination of Vicodin and Soma, prescribed at 180 pills a month. Those pills not only took away the pain, but made Ryan feel good, like she could do anything. For the next two years, Ryan's world became doctors' offices, scans, tests and rounds of physical therapy.

Her neck pain ebbed. But by that time, she was addicted to the pain pills. When she stopped taking them, her body ached and trembled, pouring sweat.She suffered vomiting and diarrhea. Ryan wasn't taking the pills to get high, though she longed for the bliss she felt when she first started taking them. At this point, she needed them to function.

Several years passed and Ryan was able to hide her addiction, though sometimes not very well. But all of her drugs were prescribed by doctors, making it more socially acceptable. Ryan knew she was an addict soon after her injury, but resigned herself to the fact that this would be her life until she died - needing pills, spending all of her waking hours focused on them, worried about getting more, never having enough.

But it kept escalating and, finally, coming apart in 2005. She stole money, pawned her jewelry and wrote bad checks. She bought drugs online from Mexico. Her husband and children found her passed out in chairs, on the floor. But she couldn't stop. She started making false prescriptions.

It worked until she tried to refill a prescription too soon and the pharmacy had to call the doctor, who said they were fake.

On Dec. 6, 2006, Ryan pulled into her street in New Port Richey after picking up her son from school. Police officers were there to arrest her. Her husband made the children go inside. Ryan, who had never been arrested for anything before, was handcuffed and taken away.

She spent the night in the Land O'Lakes jail and posted bail the next morning. That experience was enough to make Ryan quit. She detoxed at home and it was painful. Other than finding a pill under a rug and taking it, she never took another one.

She waited for her arraignment, which was slated for Feb. 1. Ryan faced years in prison.

She didn't sleep the night before. When she got into Judge Linda Babb's courtroom, Ryan was offered a lifeline. Babb said Ryan qualified for drug court, a pretrial intervention program that had just been introduced to Pasco County but has had success in Pinellas and other areas for years. Drug addicts were offered closely monitored and court-supervised rehab instead of jail time, on the idea that it costs less to help addicts than it does to keep them in jail. They had to spend four nights a week for 12 weeks going to group therapy at Alpha Counseling, for which clients had to pay only $5 a meeting, with state funds picking up the rest. They also had to attend at least one Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting a week. They underwent random drug testing and months of supervision.

Ryan cried, she was so grateful. "When can I start?" Ryan asked the counselor at court. It was a Friday. He said to come Monday.

After her first session, she felt free.

"I knew I would never take another drug again," she said.

Ryan had become a hermit in her addiction and so isolated. Here, there were others who knew what it was like. Even the counselors were former addicts. They were all so different - business owners, drug dealers, young, old, all colors, some addicted to crack, some to steroids. But soon it became like a family. They walked in 5K races together. They came to meetings even after the 12 weeks were up, so they could help the new members. If they didn't hear from one for a few weeks, they tracked down that person to make sure he or she was okay.

"I have more friends now than I have ever had," Ryan said.

She is more in love with her husband now than she's ever been in their 20 years together. She can't believe that he stood by her through all of this. So many others have lost their jobs, their families, their homes. Ryan has been open about her addiction with her two boys. She revels in the normalcy of life, of waking up and actually wanting to get out of bed, cooking, helping the boys with their homework. She loves listening, really listening, because before, all she could think about was drugs.

Ryan is throwing her energy into helping others. She plans to go to college this fall and wants to become a counselor at Alpha.

On Thursday night, in a room at the Pasco County School Board on U.S. 41, Ryan and 23 others graduated from drug court, with Judge Babb handing out the plaques. There are nearly 200 other people going through the program in Pasco County now. Babb encouraged anyone who wanted to speak to come up to the podium. Ryan walked up there and, in a shaky, tearful voice, she said thank you. And then she went home to her husband and children and fell into a nice, peaceful sleep.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at or (813) 909-4609.

Fast facts

Prison alternative turns lives around

- It is estimated that Pasco County Drug Court has already saved taxpayers more than $500,000. This estimate involves the 50 drug court clients who entered guilty pleas and received out-patient drug treatment instead of the minimum sentence of 180 days in the Pasco County Jail, where the cost is an estimated $63 per prisoner per day. (50 clients x 180 days x $63 = $567,000.)

- A total of 194 clients are currently enrolled in the program (50 in east Pasco courts and 144 in west Pasco courts).

- Four drug-free babies have been born to program participants since January 2007, when the program began in Pasco.

- Two graduates have completed General Educational Development work,a requirement for non-high school graduates who enter the program.

- Participants have included unemployed people and business owners,young adults and older residents,healthy people and those with serious or catastrophic illness.

- The Pasco program is too young to have valid recidivism data, but in Pinellas County, where the program has been going for six years, the rates are about 16 percent one year after graduation and about 27 percent after two years. Both rates are well below national averages and are much lower than for people who serve jail sentences for drug convictions.

Source: Ron Stuart, public information officer for the Sixth Judicial Court.